Skagit County is home to some of the most productive and fertile land in Western Washington, if not all the United States. More than 90 different crops are grown in the County, including blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, tulips, daffodils, pickling cucumbers and specialty potatoes. In fact, more tulip, iris, and daffodil bulbs are produced here than in any other county in the U.S.
It would then make sense that many of the students at Jefferson Elementary School in Mount Vernon, located in Western Skagit County, come from families who work in the agricultural sector. For the past several years, the Anacortes refinery has nurtured the green-thumb efforts and interests of these students, including those in Mrs. Roberta Carlson’s fifth grade class.
Carlson, whose husband Mike is an Operations Maintenance Specialist at the Anacortes refinery, is part of a trio of teachers who coordinate an afterschool garden club at Jefferson Elementary.
“Our program started about five years ago, once a week for the month of May,” recalls Carlson. “It was initiated by one of our first-grade teachers, Alyssa Klier. The second year, there were so many students that wanted to participate and limited volunteers, so each student only got to attend two of the sessions.”
In 2019, MPC began supporting the school with grants to refurbish the raised beds and add a greenhouse to the Jefferson Elementary school gardening program.
Original plans for a 14-week garden club using the school’s greenhouse were set back due to COVID-19. But the team was determined to see the project through fruition.
“I was teaching virtually and had a bit of extra time to devote to the greenhouse,” said Carlson. “I was able to start nearly 500 plants in the greenhouse before my students returned to in-person learning. We held a plant sale to raise funds to build and plant pollinator raised beds. It was the culmination of a research project on the decline of native pollinators.”
In May of 2021, the team of teachers increased to three with the addition of Jefferson Elementary Health teacher, Tegaan Klinker, allowing them to expand the garden club to each Thursday during the month of May. These teachers at Jefferson Elementary School are passionate about getting kids outside. Not only working with the earth but helping them gain a new appreciation of the food chain.
“As teachers and garden lovers, the three of us feel it is important for students to get their fingers in the dirt and to begin growing their own food,” says Carlson. “I believe that when kids plant something and nurture it, they begin to appreciate the natural world even more. I found that my fifth graders this year also developed a concern for insects and possibly grew less fearful, especially of bees, when they learned about the importance of pollinators for our food supply.”
In addition to their spring garden club, there are plans for an after-school club on early release days that began in September.
“Next year, our plans are expanding!” Carlson is excited to share. “We want to make the opportunity to participate more equitable by providing transportation home – something we haven't been able to do in the past due to funding. We also want to be able to take them on field trips to some of our local farms. We have some pie-in-the-sky dreams of one day having a kitchen classroom where students can learn to prepare meals with the food that they have grown in the greenhouse and garden.”
Historical support from the Anacortes refinery for Jefferson Elementary school extends beyond the gardening program. In years past, the refinery provided funding and supplies so each classroom could have an emergency safety kit in case of a natural disaster that might require an extended stay on school grounds. These kits included basic PPE, drawing supplies, and other safety and comfort items.
“Having this kind of impact on these students is extremely powerful,” shared Anacortes Refinery Manager James Tangaro. “But it also helps us start to create a legacy of sustainability. The students at Jefferson Elementary are learning critical skills that will stay with them for a lifetime and have a positive imprint on our community for generations.”